Christopher Ross views the mobile world a little differently than most entrepreneurs.

Christopher Ross

He worked at Microsoft for the better part of a decade, in positions including U.S. enterprise sales director, responsible for Windows and Office deployment and adoption. He started his own technology consulting business in 2010 and was later accepted into the Founder Institute startup accelerator in Chicago. He incorporated his startup, FotoJelly, in December 2011, with the goal of developing a suite of photo sharing apps based on a platform-as-a-service model.

Based on his background, he decided to make the app for Windows Phone first.

So what has it been like? Well, he doesn’t have to compete with Instagram. He won an ultrabook and a recliner in a Microsoft app developer competition, recognizing the promise of the FotoJelly app. (His mom got the La-Z-Boy.) But he has also struggled to get investors excited about the notion of betting on Microsoft’s mobile platform. (FotoJelly is currently in the middle of a crowdfunding campaign.)

GeekWire recently caught up with Ross via email for an inside look at one app maker’s experience developing for Windows Phone.

Why did you decide to develop first for Windows Phone? What are the challenges and opportunities?

Ross: There were 3 factors that influenced my decision: First, I wanted to develop on a platform and to devices I was familiar with, making it easier to work alongside the technical roles I brought on and tell the FotoJelly story from my own experiences. Secondly, I knew that if FotoJelly was accepted into Microsoft’s BizSpark program we could get developer tools and server licenses for little or no cost. That was a significant savings. Most importantly, I wanted a fighting chance to have our apps seen and adopted, even if it meant being a “big fish in a small pond” for a while. Seeing what the Microsoft marketing juggernaut was ramping up for WP8, my advisors and I we felt that if we built a good product that perhaps we could ride the coattails of their growth to a point where we could then develop for and gain visibility in the iOS and Android app stores.

Without question, the biggest challenge has been Microsoft’s decision to basically orphan WP7 in favor of WP8. The required development environment, lateness of the SDK availability, and cost to purchase devices hasn’t helped either. As a long-term strategy it probably makes sense, but it really puts startups in a difficult position. For example: do you stop your WP7 development? If so, what about current users of your app, who may not update their phones for 2yrs? With no SDK available, you pretty much sat on your hands or perhaps tried following Microsoft’s guidance to prioritize migrating your WP7 app to the Win8 app store. Well, that may not be a relevant path for your app, and could require training your developers as well. In my case, it’s a $1,500 expense just to buy WP8 devices, unlocked, for testing and demoing, helping my contractors upgrade their OSes and tools, and the “bench time” necessary to get competent with the new OSes. Deciding to halt development and wait for the SDK was a tough decision; and the time wasted almost killed my company. Again, I understand why they did it, but I think you see that impact in both the quality and quantity of WP8-specific apps available right now.

How do investors react when they hear you’re targeting Windows Phone first? What has it been like to try to raise money?

I like to joke that if I had just $10k for every potential investor who said “Looks nice. Let me now when you’re on iOS or Android” we would not be pursuing a crowdfunding campaign! In all candor, it’s been tough, trying to be taken seriously when making the case for Windows Phone as the first device you’re supporting. Pitching yourself as a company that’s initially targeting a <5% addressable market in a crowded app category is difficult, and I wonder daily if it was the right decision. We’d love to be one of a handful of startups that Microsoft, its employees and its fans would rally around, but I don’t know if that’s part of the culture any longer.

Can Windows Phone truly support its own homegrown apps like you’re trying to create, or will it have to rely on apps (and communities) with roots in other platforms? How will you create network effects?

One need only look at the Xbox to see an example of how a few “halo” apps (no pun intended) could dramatically improve Windows Phone’s position. That’s not just evangelizing of the platform but also seeking out startups developing unique apps, apps that extend beyond the “me too” generation of apps, that your target market wants and making some bets on their success in return for periods of exclusivity. I think that approach would be seen as a vote of confidence in their platform and its ability to win over users moreso than trying to get established apps to write to it.

Is Instagram a model for you?

No. I think what they’ve built is novel, but Instagram is to photo sharing what twitter is to telling a story. Maybe I would feel differently if I had a $750M exit, but right now I really just want to build something that actually solves a problem, offers enough value that a portion of my users want to pay for the service, and developers like the platform we give them to launch their own solutions on. With all due respect to what they’ve accomplished, we believe that when it comes to photo sharing, they’re addressing the 20%, not the 80%, e.g., most of our parents, friends and families.

As a third-party developer, what is your perspective on Microsoft’s Windows Phone developer support? What can the company do to improve?

I think it’s a developer support model for the industry, no doubt. Between BizSpark, TechNet, Microsoft Partner Network, they really seem to understand the importance of lowering barriers to the evaluation, training for, and usage of their developer tools and services. But the hardware acquisition costs are a significant barrier to startups. Were there a way to get $99 or even $199 devices (unlocked), I think you would see more developers exploring the possibilities. Frankly, I wish they’d had a WP7 buyback program with the major carriers to increase the availability of WP8 devices and capture some good buzz. Also, while I’ve recently made some contacts in the Chicago area, I wish they had more of a presence in the startup community here, the 3rd largest city in the US.

What has the transition to Windows Phone 8 been like for you?

Difficult. Remember, there wasn’t an SDK or devices available until late October.  And while they’ve been good about making technical contacts available, our remarked that they’d been given very little training/experience on the OS, didn’t have devices themselves, and mostly were forwarding links to articles they found on the web. It’s gotten easier, but time is money for a startup and every day we’re not writing good quality code or shipping is one more day we’re not able to attract customers or investors.

How do you plan to make money, and how will you measure success?

I really admire Phil Libin of Evernote and the freemium model his company uses because it obligates you to focus on providing value to every customer, not just the ones paying you directly. From the outset we decided that a feature-rich app with non-intrusive advertising would be the way to go. Since then we’ve identified a handful of in-app features that we believe a subset of our customers would upgrade to a paid app to utilize. On the PAAS side, we have our API and a host of services that are best supported in a subscription model, targeting social media professionals, event managers, brands and advertisers. We are working hard to solidify our monetization plan early on, so as not to disrupt the relationship with our customers later on when our investors decide they want to start getting a return on their investments.

FotoJelly is available in the Windows Phone store.

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Comments

  • http://www.mainstreetchatham.com/ JimmyFal

    Microsoft should be giving guys like this phones. At least in the beginning.

  • Guest

    I hate to say it, but it seems that you don’t have enough confidence in your own product and ability to succeed in a crowded market (Android or iOS). As an investor I would be wondering why you prefer being a big fish in a small pond over a big fish in a big ocean (unless you think you can’t ever become a big fish in an ocean, then I shouldn’t really invest in your startup). Best case scenario is that you’ll be successful in the long term (together with WP8), but that’s not a good strategy for a cash strapped startup, and not a good investment for an investor.

    • http://www.facebook.com/christopher.ross Christopher Ross

      It’s not a lack of confidence in our product, but rather assessing the challenges any mobile startup has of getting notice in the Android, iOS market. Our thought was that we could hone our app in a smaller market, capitalize on the anticipated growth of the Windows Phone 8, and leverage that to introduce our app into other markets with some momentum behind us. But, I appreciate your assessment as an investor. Thanks for commenting.

      • Guest

        Hi Chris, thanks for responding. The way your strategy can be perceived is that you are exchanging the uncertainty of emerging on top in a crowded space for the uncertainty of the platform itself gaining fast momentum to expand to market share levels somewhere near iOS or Android. Basically you’re putting your fate into Microsofts ability rather than yours. Investors prefer to invest in startups that have the potential to become the next huge thing – the next facebook, the next instagram – not just a business that may do OK over long time. Otherwise the risk greatly outweighs the the ROI. Hence my comments earlier. Try to see the world the way investors see it, not the way you want it to be, then you will succeed. Good luck.

        • http://www.facebook.com/christopher.ross Christopher Ross

          This is a learning experience for me. I accept and appreciate your feedback. Thank you.

    • mark

      Actually the best case scenario is he’ll get noticed sooner and start making money faster on Windows Phone. In which case his gamble will have paid off, as it has for a few others who made the same decision. That the smaller addressable market would be less interesting to many outside investors is a valid point.

      • Guest

        The question is how long does it take for Windows Phone 8 to grow to become a strong third player. Here on GeekWire there’s an article just slightly earlier than this, about a dad and a 12-year old girl, who developed a killer calculator app for Android and iOS. That is what you have to compare yourself to. A great idea will prevail in a crowded ecosystem. Succeed because of your own ability or perish. There are thousands of startups out there, you better be the best deal.

        • mark

          No, that’s another question entirely.
          A great idea will prevail in a crowded ecosystem? You obviously have a limited understanding of computer history. Rarely has the best mouse trap won. Indeed there are numerous now defunct startups who failed because they mistakenly believed that was all that was required for success.

          • Guest

            OK, that came out wrong, mostly because I wanted to keep things brief. What it should have said is that as a developer you have to be very confident that your great idea is so superior that it will succeed even in a crowded space. If you don’t believe that yourself, why should an investor. Otherwise, I am well aware that the best idea doesn’t always win, thank you.

          • guest

            You seem to be reading things into his comments that aren’t there. His choice of tactics doesn’t imply he’s not confident in his product’s ability to eventually win even in a crowded market. It just says he’s trying to be smart in his initial approach.

  • guest

    What a great, frank, article. Seems like the decision to support windows phone is still a really hard one for developers.

    I wonder how many small companies invest in Microsoft technologies in the hope MS will give them a big marketing pop, only to be deeply disillusioned after they ship.

    Geekwire, can you do a follow up interview with him in 6 mos? would be great to see how things change as WP8 gets more traction, more devices get shipped, etc. If it goes well, it’ll be great for investors to see.

  • Bob

    Very good article, Todd. Really underscores the challenges facing MS and the developers who have targeted WP. Christopher makes a good point about how a Halo-like exclusive on WP could make a very big difference to adoption, similar to the way Office became a killer app for Windows. MS has prioritized getting the top iOS and Android apps over – and that makes sense. But sounds like they could do a lot more to increase their chances of seeing one of those exclusive killer apps emerge. Of course if they’re unable to get past 5% share then the entire discussion is kind of moot.

  • http://twitter.com/alwaysbshipping Tom Leung

    Excellent article Todd. Really appreciated the candor and insights here. I tend to feel if WP wants more entrepreneurs to jump on board (and they may not since most mainstream people just use a few mega apps — many of which are on WP already), the ROI for a startup to build on WP needs to change. Given the current WP market share, it feels like startups will need some more sweeteners from MSFT (co-marketing dollars, development subsidies, etc.) for it to pencil out.

  • Thomas R.

    I agree with most of the comments. Microsoft needs to step it up and offer additional incentives for developers to build apps for their platform. Why not take the billions they are spending on marketing and instead spend it on app developers. $25k-50k can go a long way.

    And why not give away hardware to developers? (Surface, Win8 phones) I imagine that developers would want to show off their apps to people and by doing so market Win8 as well…

    Now I’m wondering exactly what the hundreds of evangelists at Microsoft do…

  • http://twitter.com/kavla Kav Latiolais

    The hardest part for Microsoft is this bit:

    “Secondly, I knew that if FotoJelly was accepted into Microsoft’s BizSpark program we could get developer tools and server licenses for little or no cost. That was a significant savings.”

    That’s table stakes these days. Not a major benefit. I’m sure that if Chris had experience working with other platforms he wouldn’t have listed this at all. BizSpark does given Azure credits but other than that all the platforms have free high quality developer tools and free server operating systems. XCode and Eclipse are free as are most of the major Linux distributions. MS is the only player that considers selling these things.

    • WP7Mango

      Visual Studio Express is free, and is all you need to develop Windows Phone 7/8 apps.

      • http://twitter.com/kavla Kav Latiolais

        Like I said. Table stakes. Everyone has free tools. This isn’t a benefit any more.

        • WP7Mango

          I never said it was. I just thought that you were implying that VS needed to be purchased in order to develop WP apps.

        • pondosinat

          You said other platforms have free “high quality” developer tools. You seriously comparing XCode to Visual Studio? XCode and Eclipse are maybe a quarter of the quality of the VS Express (the free version). I’m a veteran developer and I can make a grand in a day spending less than an hour in front of VS 2012. If I was running XCode, I’d probably never see my family.

          Don’t get me wrong, you make a valid point, and MS doesn’t have the same clout it once did, but there’s ALWAYS been a clear difference between open source and MS tools. You get what you pay for.

  • SilverSee

    I love Windows Phone, but I think that many of the decisions Microsoft made around the Windows Phone 8 launch were addled, including the decisions to withhold the SDK from developers and to orphan the WP7 platform.

    Too many Microsoft decisions are driven by its own engineering expedience, and too few by what is the right thing to do for its customers and developers.

    • guest

      The group reports directly to Ballmer, not via its Division. So they ostensibly realize its strategic importance. The billions they’ve poured into this efforts also confirm that. But I agree that they still seem to make a lot of addled decisions. It’s an enigma. If the group does something stupid for some unknown reason, why doesn’t Ballmer have their ass and correct is asap? While MS now has some scary good competitors, they often seem to be their own worst enemy.

  • http://twitter.com/zyuriy Yuriy Zaremba

    Idk about the app, but he’s really gotta do something about that logo! At least address the terrible kerning!

    • http://www.facebook.com/christopher.ross Christopher Ross

      :) I’ll add that to my ToDo list!

  • http://twitter.com/vbandi András Velvárt

    While I agree with some points in the article, I don’t understand a lot of things. First, why do a photo sharing app on a platform which already has built-in photo sharing to Facebook and Twitter? It is still not clear to me what this app does better. Second, this article is the first time I’ve heard of FotoJelly. Why was it not advertised at blog sites, such as WPCentral? It’s not just me, the app barely has two reviews even though it is at 1.7.

    I don’t understand the waiting for the WP8 SDK. There was plenty of work to be done before that: server side development or even a WP7 version (at least for prototyping). Speaking of which, I don’t see why this app has to be WP8-exclusive, why lock out the millions of WP7 users already out there? There are two things WP8 adds to the table for an app like this: Lens apps (which FotoJelly does not take advantage of) and native code for filters. I have no idea whether this feature is used at all – see below why.

    As for cheap developer devices, did you know that Nokia had a campaign where they gave out phones for everybody who published their first app? This campaign is now over, but it would have been great to take advantage of. And yes, unlocked devices are not cheap, but they cost much less than a week’s salary for a developer.

    I downloaded the app. I couldn’t take a photo with it, but it offered me to log in to Facebook. I did the login process (normally, I would have abandoned the app at this point – UX experts say that login / registration should be done AFTER showing off the product), and then I got an error message. So, the app did not even work, and I couldn’t test it beyond looking at some photos.

    Sorry if I sound negative, but I think that in this case it is not the platform that’s at fault: more like the execution, and perhaps even the basic idea.

    • http://www.facebook.com/christopher.ross Christopher Ross

      Thanks for the comments. This was an opportunity to share the experiences of a one startup; some challenges I would agree could be seen as unique to FotoJelly, but I hope you take away the overall message.

      We released our Beta, on WP7, last summer. There is only so much you can do in prep for WP8 without either an SDK or devices. In fact, the message Microsoft was giving developers was to focus on migrating your app to WinRT in the meantime. There are capabilities we want to take advantage of in WP8. Additionally, we were told that unless your app is designed for WP8 (not just compatible) it will be difficult to get any marketing interest. Understandable, but it does force small teams to make tough choices.

      I don’t recall the Nokia offer specifically for a WP8, so perhaps an opportunity was missed. It’s also possible that we didn’t qualify because we’d already published our app.

      We’ve not implemented a “Review Nag”, but are considering it. We’ve been fortunate to have a pretty vocal group of users and I track downloads daily. I’m sorry for the experience you had, would be glad to address your concerns.  

  • http://twitter.com/halberenson Hal Berenson

    It’s good to see articles coming out about the WP ecosystem experience, both as education to others and as a way to goad Microsoft into improving its approach.

    The thing about investors is that they have a heard mentality. For example back in the 90s VCs insisted that their companies buy big honking Sun boxes and run Oracle on them rather than SQL Server on Windows for no reason other than that other successful startups had used Sun/Oracle. They felt that saving 80% on IT costs wasn’t worth the risk of doing anything other than what they already knew worked. When the bubble burst there were warehouses full of those boxes that eventually sold for pennies on the dollar and the VCs had wasted tens or hundres of $millions just to follow the heard. So it’s not surprising that they want you to go Android or IOS as that’s the current heard mentality.

    There are two things that bothered me about the WP8 launch. One of course was the handling of the existing WP7 world. I’ve argued there were a number of ways that it could have been handled differently, from actually calling WP7.8 something like “WP8 Entry” to just clearer messaging. WP7 is going to live on for years, and perhaps at high volume, as new low-end WP7.8 devices enter the market. And yet most of Microsoft’s messaging to developers has, like the messaging to current WP7 owners, been “WP7? What’s that?”. If Microsoft would have clearly messaged the ongoing life of WP7.8 in new devices and encouraged developers to maintain a dual WP7/WP8 track (when appropriate for their app) then you and others would have continued to invest in your WP7 app while waiting for the WP8 SDK. Instead app development stalled and developers missed both the opportunity to gain revenue from WP7 and catching the WP8 wave early.

    The second thing is the lateness of the SDK. I really don’t get it and I wish Terry or Joe would just be candid and explain why it happened. It made absolutely no sense. I could understand having a smaller window between SDK availability and GA, but effectively no window? They gained almost nothing in terms of controlling the information flow but severely damaged the relationship with the developer community.

    Perhaps they decided that most of the broad and early engagement they did for WP7/7.5 got them a high volume of low quality apps but didn’t help with getting the important apps, so they changed the approach (and focused just on some specific developers they felt they needed on board). But that left startups doing innovative quality apps out in the cold. Hopefully going forward the approach won’t be so one-sided.

    And, of course, Microsoft overall was trying to get developers to focus on WIndows 8. It is hard to tell externally how much of the WP8 screwup with developers was caused by corporate decisions to avoid distractions. But as you point out in the interview, developers who are specifically focused on phones were hurt as a result.

    Finally, the most important lesson that any developer needs to take away is that app stores aren’t a substitute for real marketing of your product. It doesn’t matter if its IOS, Android, or WP there is no “build it and they will come”. You need to promote your product in all the traditional ways, at least until it goes viral.

    So one specific piece of advice, fix your website! The left side menu doesn’t work (you can click a link once, but after that you need to refresh the page to click a different one). You list IOS and Android, but the Download button is specific to Windows Phone. Etc. If you can’t make a website work why would I assume your app works?

    The free hardware problem is kind of interesting. Microsoft and its partners have had free hardware programs, but these are very much 1-on-1 things. Attend Build, get a device, for example. They don’t help when you have 5 developers and need to equip each of them with a device. Then the assumption is that you’ll either do the development on the emulator and just use a single real device for testing or that if you can afford to pay multiple developers you can afford to buy devices. I think the bigger problem was that their was no early availability developer device. Given that WP8 wouldn’t run on existing hardware that was crazy.

    • Guest

      Hm, continuing WP7.8 as “WP8 Entry” in addition to WP8/WinRT/Win8 …. talk about fragmentation and customer confusion. Some run W8 mobile apps, others only old W7 mobile apps, but except for Win8 none really runs x86 legacy applications. What a mess! You expect average customers to get this?

      • English 101

        Guess you missed the part where he said “or just clearer messaging”.

        • Guest

          Because it’s meaningless nonsense. MS doesn’t want to message yet another flavor of kinda Windows 8, they ultimately want to converge everything to one OS, which is why phones, tablets and desktop all are supposed to have it now. They had to compromise on RT because legacy apps simply don’t run on ARM, and without ARM there’s currently no iPad-like tablet. At best this is merely a transition phase until Intel comes out with a competitive x86 cpu in mobile. In fact it’s all driven by compromise right now. Ever wondered why Win8 lost Aero? Because it just doesn’t run efficiently on ARM, that’s why. It had nothing to do with aesthetics, as they want you to believe.

          • English 101

            The suggestion that messaging should have been clearer, by a former MS distinguished engineer no less, is hardly “meaningless nonsense”. It’s self-evident fact. They still have to message W7.8, so your point about W8 doesn’t make much sense. The issue is how that could have done that more effectively. The move to one kernel has been the goal for years. Your not telling me – and certainly not Hal – anything we don’t know. And again, since 7.8 is still part of the mix it doesn’t matter. They still have to message it alongside WP8, WinRT, W8. Hence Hal’s point about the importance of doing that better. Saying legacy apps don’t run on ARM demonstrates a weak understanding of the subject matter. The constraints are the more limited CPU power (at least currently) and fact that many legacy x86 apps weren’t written for touch or optimized for batter-powered machines. Outside of that, many could be ported and would run, as Windows itself now does. There just isn’t sufficient business case for many devs to bother. MS’s WinRT effort might end up being transitional if it fails. In which case you’ll be right about Intel being their remaining path going forward. But strategically it’s pretty clear they’re hoping to establish the RT runtime, whether it’s on ARM or Intel, in a big way and eventually relegate x86 to something akin to DOS support on current Windows. Contrary to what you might believe, MS’s senior management aren’t stupid. Ineffective in many cases, yes. But stupid, no. They realize that unless Intel pulls a rabbit out of a hat ARM is going to be the volume winner long term. And MS needs volume. The company was built on it. Regarding Aero, they mentioned on numerous occasions that battery usage was one of the reasons they decided to drop support. Aesthetic issues were another. Again, you act like you’re telling me something I and others don’t know. But it’s all a matter of historical record.

          • Guest

            I don’t even disagree much with this particular comment. Just a few things. I’m fully aware of the ARM RISC architecture, its benefits and limitations, have developed on ARM since the late 90s. For now porting x86 legacy applications is simply a no go. And secondly, I didn’t assume that MS senior management are stupid, since I didn’t support the idea that they should have messaged WP7.8 any differently. You guys did. To me, this was a planned and necessary break and they communicated it by adding a last 7.8 iteration. WP7 is a dying branch, that was messaged clearly. Stating that they should have messaged it better actually implies that they are incompetent (aka stupid). You act like you’re telling me something I and others don’t know. ;)

    • paul

      Good insights. Yeah, the transition from 7>8 was extremely poorly handled. Seems like they originally intended to kill it but then very late in the process decided it should be retained and repurposed. Unclear what they think the lasting benefit of that is, particularly now with little new app dev. Any hardware advantage it has or licensing discount freedom it may provide seems short lived at best. Unfortunately, outside of developing a pretty decent OS, much of the WP effort has been bungled. From the lack of hardware availability at launch, the initial update fiasco and ineffective marketing (recently improved), and this WP7 to 8 transition. For a product this important to MS’s future, with Ballmer’s direct oversight, it’s disappointing that MS hasn’t been able to do better.

  • C38S

    So what is better? Having a good app in an uncrowded market with fewer top quality competing apps, or putting a good app in a crowded market and advertising it and hoping your advertising translates to downloads? I’d say for a weekend developer the answer is to get into an uncrowded market because the competition is too strong otherwise. But for a new business??? tough choices.
    If the advertising budget was high then I’d say go for the crowded market but if advertising is uncertain then an uncrowded market will guarantee downloads.

  • http://twitter.com/Enos_u_dipstick Dan

    One month has passed since this article was published, and fotojelly is sitting in the WP app store with *three* customer reviews. Smh. I love the WP OS, it’s just sad that it isn’t getting any traction with consumers and app developers. We’ll see if the situation improves, but if three years from now tech writers are writing obituaries for WP, they’ll all point to the orphaning of the early WP7 adopters as one of the primary causes of death.

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